The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

I have never read the novel with this title by the Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez published in 1919, which, as far as I understand, is about two branches of the same family who turned out to be on opposing sides during World War I. However, the influence of that novel (and of two American films based on it) during the 20th century turned the phrase and the figure of the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse” into one of the most representative notions, in popular western imagery, of the calamities that would supposedly occur at the end of the world.

To begin with, it must be said that even though the sole word “apocalypse” causes terror in many people who associate it with catastrophes and horror, the book of Revelation, sometimes referred to as Apocalypse (the revelation given to John by the risen Jesus) is above all a book of victory and hope: the definitive victory of Christ and of his Kingdom, and the total defeat of his enemies.  It is true that, to a large extent, this book deals with the end of the world, but the fact is precisely that we Christians understand the “end of the world” not as a frightful cataclysm but as the longed-for consummation of God’s plan and the definitive establishment of his Kingdom, whose coming we repeatedly pray for in the Lord’s Prayer.

I must mention two other warnings about the book of Revelation: first of all, it does not present the events in chronological order, much less as “datable” predictions of the future; secondly, precisely because it is made up of a series of prophetic visions, it employs many symbols that go back to various prophetic writings in the Old Testament and other pieces of Jewish literature. (Let me give, however, a warning about the warning: the fact that symbolic language is used does not mean that the facts or the characters are also symbolic. For example, the Lamb is a symbol of Christ; but Christ is a real character, as is his death, resurrection and final return.)

The Four Horsemen in Revelation 6

Well then, in the beginning of Chapter 6 of Revelation, when John begins to tell the visions he had in Heaven about “what must take place after this” (4:1) he describes how the Lamb – which represents Jesus, dead and risen again as Lord of all – breaks the seven seals that sealed the book or scroll of God’s plan for human history and its consummation. Obviously, the book as such cannot be opened until the seventh seal has been broken. And it is in the opening of the first four seals that the famous four horsemen are mentioned:

1 Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” 2 And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.

3 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.

5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand.6 And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”

7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.

Revelation 6:1–8

Even though only the fourth horseman is said to have a name (“Death”), it is possible that the description of the second and third riders, together with the final words of verse 8 (which are an approximate quote of Ezekiel 14:21, and we cannot know if they only refer to Death and Hades, or to the four horsemen as a group) have caused that the horsemen be traditionally called “Pestilence, Warfare, Hunger and Death.” Following the order in which they are presented, the one whose description least matches his traditional name is the first horseman, who in no sense is described as “pestilence”. Instead, pestilence, which logically brings forth great mortality, could be included in the fourth horseman.

Drawing from my friend and teacher Steve Clark, I would understand that the first horseman who “came out conquering, and to conquer” (v. 2) represents the power of an empire that conquers and dominates the human race. The white color of his horse symbolizes victory; his bow, the weapons used to exercise his power; his crown, the governmental authority he gains when he conquers. Perhaps this rider could represent various political empires in different times of history: the Roman empire, the Persian empire, and all others. And I would say that perhaps, in our days, it would not be a single political empire (although it could become one), but that of the western globalized, secularized and de-Christianized “empire” which is gradually imposing its “unique thinking”, its moral dissolution and its culture of death over all the nations.

The other three riders are very clear in their description, which makes them easier to interpret: war (possibly civil violence: “was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword,” v. 4); hunger or poverty (he is carrying a pair of scales and is ordered to set very high prices to basic food, while the prices for luxurious food remain unchanged, v. 6); and death who wreaks havoc through  pestilence and “the wild beasts of the earth”, which suggests an ecological disarray (v. 8).

What, then? Do these horsemen represent the events that usher in the end of the world…? Based again on Steve’s analysis, I would say no, or at least not necessarily. If we look into history and we watch today’s news, we can notice that these four realities – let us call them “military conquest, warfare, hunger and pestilence/death” – have always been present, in diverse forms, throughout human history. We could say they are our “daily bread”; they are the ‘fixed value’ of human calamity. This is confirmed by Jesus’ words when talking about the end of times:

“And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.”

Matthew 24:6-8

The Disclosure of God’s Judgments to Save his People

We could say that the book of Revelation, as a whole, is the disclosure of God’s judgments to save his people and to establish his definitive Kingdom. To be sure, some of those judgments are the ones that trigger the final acts of the drama of salvation: they are executed, as I mentioned earlier, once the seven seals have been broken and when the scroll can be opened; they are described starting in chapter 8 and they are ushered in by the seven trumpets and the seven bowls. But these others, in chapters 6 and 7, come right before the final stage – when the seals are just being opened – and that is why, in a way, they are God’s constant judgment during human history.

This is, then, the way in which God carries out his “constant judgment” over humankind, and which in a certain way prepares the “final judgment” but does not indicate that it is imminent. As Jesus says, “the end is not yet.” What the prophet tells us as a message from God, and the most important point he is teaching, is that these judgments come from God. They are not simply the result of chance or miscalculations by the human beings. They come from heaven, from the very throne of God, as we can see in the passage of chapter 6 that was quoted earlier: it is Christ, the Lamb, who opens each seal; and every horseman receives his orders from one of the four living creatures who stand by the throne of God, as described in chapter 4. It is God himself who actually decides the time and the order in which these events in history take place. He is the Lord of history, our history; and Christ, the Lamb, is the only one worthy to set these judgments in motion.

Crossroads that Force Us to Choose

But why are we speaking about “judgment”? It would be helpful to understand that the Greek word from the New Testament that is often translated as “judgment” is krísis. Yes, that’s where our term “crisis” comes from. God allows these calamities – military conquest, warfare, hunger and pestilence – or sets the times and places in which they will occur, to give people an opportunity to turn to him. So each of these “crisis” is a “judgment” because it divides people, some on one side and some on the other: in times of crisis, one can turn to God, take refuge in Him, embrace his salvation and work for his Kingdom, or else plunge into terror and despair, turn one’s back on God and cling to a way of life that dispenses with God and holds to its own means and resources, pretending to be self-sufficient. This crisis, this judgment, is not necessarily a “punishment” but rather a crossroads, a decision point, a juncture that forces us to choose.

It is clear that in these cases we cannot talk about punishment from God, since we all can see that an earthquake, a famine or a mortal epidemic are calamities and tragedies in which “the innocent pay for the sins of the guilty”. We don’t mean that the victims of such events are more guilty than others and deserve to die. This is because the “judgment” isn’t something that comes upon individuals – some of the victims are guilty of something, some will be completely innocent – but upon humankind as a whole, and what truly matters then is the answer that two different groups of people give to God: those who undergo this calamity and are harmed by it, and on the other hand, those who survive it. In Luke 13:1-5 Jesus is brought up a question about a similar situation: some Galileans who had come to the temple to offer a sacrifice were killed on the spot by Pilate’s command. Jesus replies: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (vv. 2-3). Then, he himself mentions a similar case in which some men were crushed by the falling of a tower, and he poses the same challenge: “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (v. 5). God’s judgment is intended to elicit our response in conversion, turning to God with our whole being.

Some Significant Differences Between COVID-19 and other pandemics

Currently, the whole world is suffering from the ‘COVID-19’ pandemic, and we have all experienced (or are beginning to experience) many significant differences between this pandemic and the ones that came before it. In a matter of a couple months, this virus has stricken all of humankind, deeply and unexpectedly. One of the main particularities of the historical moment in which this plague happens is that all of humankind, in all countries and cultures, is now much closer and intertwined than a few decades ago. It is intertwined by progress in communication technology, by the many commercial and administrative ties between companies, organizations and governments in every continent, by the countless travel generated by those relationships, by tourism, recreation and many other activities. We truly are now, as has been said, a “global village”: the world has become much smaller.

Globalization, indeed, has brought humankind together in unprecedented ways. If we were all impacted in one way or another by the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the subsequent years, if the earthquake and tsunami of 2004 in the Indian Ocean was a magnificent opportunity to express international solidarity with the affected populations, now this virus has simply paralyzed the world, and that is something we all suffer in diverse ways.

This pandemic is also different from others, and mainly so, because it has made evident how fragile our worldly system is – this system of which we were so confident. A tiny organism has been capable of bringing down not only the health systems of many countries, but, on a global level, tourism and all its related industries, the commercial activity of airlines, the business of sports events, as well as countless companies, from small neighborhood businesses to powerful multinational ones. It has severely changed the way education and academic institutions work, and in many cases, the way in which work is carried out in businesses or institutions. It has caused the cancellation or postponement of countless events, from weddings to conventions of international organizations, to sports competitions, and artistic and business events. Everyone has had to change plans. Many things on which we relied are no longer there. And many – we still don’t know which – will be completely different even after this crisis is over. It can be said that this virus has simply changed the world and the life of human beings, and it is only later that we will learn how.

Recognizing the Lord of History and Our Human Limitations

All this should lead us to reflect and to realize that, as humans, we cannot put so much trust in ourselves, in our scientific and technological advances, in our political and economic power, in our sophisticated ways of organizing society and of defining our lifestyles. Humankind has been arrogant. It has built a huge tower with the conceit that no one can exceed their ingenuity, their knowledge or their ability. It has believed itself to be owner and master of its own destiny, of its present and its future, and even of its planet and its universe. But suddenly it’s faced with the fact that this big tower can crash down in an instant, that all its securities are wavering. It is time, then, to recognize our smallness and our limitations: history, our history, is not determined by us. The Lord of history – and therefore the Lord of the life of each of us – is God. The Lamb who was slain is the only one worthy to break the seals and open the book, the only one who will bring humankind’s history and God’s full plan to their consummation.

Of the “four horsemen of the Apocalypse,” we can see pestilence and death in action today, as well as an economic disaster which perhaps is barely beginning. Warfare and military power, at least in what relates to the coronavirus, don’t seem to be very present (but could show up in the short or medium term). Regardless, as stated before, calamities such as these are God’s “constant judgment” throughout history; they are part of our human reality.

Is the “end of the world” approaching? Maybe. Christians should always live longing for the full establishment of God’s Kingdom, and in that sense, we should be prepared for the end of the world to come very soon, just as each one of us should always be prepared for our own death. In a way similar to the current situation, there have been other times in history when the end of the world has been perhaps “very close”.

But it could be that this isn’t the case: there could be centuries or even millennia yet to come in human history. In that event, this present judgment, this crisis, will have been a lesson for those who live in these days that, instead of continuing to idolize ourselves, we humbly recognize the true Lord. This judgment is an excellent opportunity for us to embrace God and his mercy, and to begin to live right now the life of the Kingdom that will one day come in full.

This article © by Carlos Alonso Vargas was originally published in Spanish at English translation by Juan Carlos Aragón.

Top illustration (cropped version): The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, woodcut print by Albrecht Durer, 1497

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